What can we learn from Starbucks in a racially charged PR crisis?

Lessons from Starbucks' approach to the crisis.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

As a native Philadelphian and frequent Starbucks customer, I was deeply disappointed by the arrest of two black men charged with "trespassing" in a local store. I was not surprised by the subsequent call for a national boycott of America’s favorite coffee shop as the public response. The issue of black men being arrested for unfair and unjust reasons at inequitable rates is a sensitive topic in this country. It is fair to expect that people want answers, solutions, and justice. I do too.

However, I patronized Starbucks this past weekend. Let me tell you why. I remembered the company’s 2015 Race Together campaign, the in-store initiative designed to stimulate conversation, compassion, and most importantly, positive action on race in America. The campaign failed epically. The execution was awkward and uncomfortable for baristas and customers. Regardless, I applaud Starbucks for being the only company to take a public stance on the issue of racism and implement action to help address it.

I have been closely following Starbucks’ response to this crisis. Racism is an issue that isn’t going away and consumer brands will remain vulnerable to scrutiny as it relates to discrimination. There are lessons we can learn from Starbucks’ approach:

Understand how critical a sensitive tone is in messaging
I was disappointed by the company’s first response delivered via Twitter. While it was timely and did convey the obligatory apology and promise of policy review; it fell flat for a community frustrated by racial inequalities. It lacked empathy and avoided the issue of race altogether. The tweet failed to reinforce Starbucks’ mission to help make the world a better place and its desire to nurture the human spirit.

Engage the CEO publicly to demonstrate a sincere commitment to resolving the issue
Starbucks released a strong video statement featuring CEO Kevin Johnson. He expressed regret using phrases such as, "disheartening situation," "reprehensible outcome," and "deepest apologies." He accepted full responsibility for the incident and outlined specific actions the company would take to rebuild trust and revise company policies. Johnson traveled to Philadelphia and offered a personal apology to the two men arrested. He also asked for their assistance in addressing this societal issue moving forward.

Leverage positive proof points
Starbucks has a track record of authentic commitment to diversity and inclusion to reinforce. That record is supported by partnering with basketball legend Earvin "Magic" Johnson in 1998 to open 105 stores in underserved markets; making Mellody Hobson, a nationally respected financial expert, whose personal mantra is to be "color brave," a member of the board of the directors; and hiring Rosalind Brewer, an African-American former CEO of Sam’s Club, as its COO.

Overall, I am impressed with how Starbucks has handled this crisis. It has expressed regrets and accountability, met with key stakeholders, willingly participated in media interviews, and apologized to the unfairly charged men. They also implemented actions for internal change, including plans to close 8,000 stores for a day of racial bias training.

However, their work is not done. They will have to establish long-term strategies internally and externally to rebuild and maintain the trust of African-American consumers. I will continue to monitor their actions and hope they live up to the brand I believe them to be.

Alexis Davis Smith is the president and CEO of PRecise Communications, an Atlanta-based marketing communications firm.

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